Diplomacy: Who has Olmert's ear?

While the defense establishment urged forceful retaliation in response to Monday's suicide bombing, Olmert opted for Livni's diplomacy-based guidance.

olmert and livni 88.298 (photo credit: AP [file])
olmert and livni 88.298
(photo credit: AP [file])
The suicide bomb that ripped through the Rosh Ha'ir shwarma restaurant in Tel Aviv on Monday - a sunny Pessah afternoon - hurtled the country's collective consciousness back to the worst days of this terror war, when these types of incidents seemed almost weekly occurrences. Indeed, the attack that killed nine and wounded more than 60 was the most deadly the country had suffered since August 31, 2004, when 16 people were killed and 100 wounded in two suicide bombings within minutes of each other on two Beersheba city buses. Following Monday's attack, Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert held a round of "emergency consultations," amid calls for a forceful response - some in the army were calling for a Defensive Shield-type operation in retaliation - because this time, the argument ran, things were different. Things were different because there was now a newly elected Israeli prime minister who needed to prove his mettle and show the Palestinians he wouldn't be pushed around. And things were different this time because Hamas, the same Hamas that took responsibility for the August 2004 attacks in Beersheba, was now sitting atop the Palestinian Authority pyramid. The playing field had changed significantly, and there was a need to establish fresh ground rules - or so the argument ran. But there was no IDF ground-troop movement into the northern West Bank, where the suicide bomber came from. There were no targeted assassinations of terrorist kingpins. There were no aerial bombardments of Gaza. There were a few more arrests than usual, more roadblocks, and a decision to start the process of revoking the Jerusalem residency rights of high-profile Hamas activists. Oh, and yes, there was a decision to step up the anti-Hamas information campaign around the world. WHAT IS Olmert's thinking? First of all, according to senior government officials, he is thinking very much with the aid of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Indeed, the decision to take steps to revoke the Jerusalem residency rights of Hamas leaders was a Livni idea. She also argued against declaring the Palestinian Authority an "enemy authority," as some in the defense establishment had recommended, saying that this would lead Israel prematurely down a slippery slope. For instance, if Israel declared the PA an "enemy authority," as opposed to its current status as a "hostile entity," doing business with it - any kind of business - would become illegal, just as is now the case regarding business with Syria, Lebanon or Iran. Which would mean that the Israel Electric Corporation would have to cease providing the PA with electricity, that Mekorot wouldn't provide it water, that Dor Alon Energy wouldn't provide gas. In short, the humanitarian crisis in the PA that Israel has said it wants to avoid would be nigh upon us. Former foreign minister Silvan Shalom's presence at high-level consultations following terrorist attacks in the past was largely a formality. He had to be there, but his influence on policymaking was minimal. Livni, on the other hand, is having her say, and her say is being felt. Olmert, according to government sources, respects and listens to her. One official even characterized the relationship as an "Olmert-Livni" axis. It is important to remember that Livni is the foreign minister - meaning that, unlike the defense minister, who thinks primarily in military terms and military solutions, she is thinking about how Israel's actions will play out around the world: what impact they will have on Israel's diplomatic standing and what they will do to Israel's attempt to isolate Hamas and get the world to stop funding the Hamas-led PA. In taking stock of how Olmert operates under fire, it is telling to see that on Tuesday, Livni's voice held sway, apparently over that of the defense establishment, where voices were raised - as is almost reflexively the case - for a harsh, widespread military response. As expected, Foreign Ministry officials, who felt to a large degree marginalized during Ariel Sharon's tenure because Shalom's voice was not taken too seriously in the inner chambers, were thrilled with their new boss's influence. In the past, Foreign Ministry officials have complained that Israel lost critical diplomatic points by responding to terrorist attacks too swiftly, by pounding Palestinian positions even before the Israeli victims of an attack were buried. What this often meant was that in the battle for world opinion, the cameras' lenses shifted from covering Israel's pain, to covering the "collateral damage" of the Israeli response. The focus was on the effect of an Israeli retaliatory raid, rather than the cause - the suicide bombing. This time things were different. Since there was no major retaliatory move, the focus lingered on the bombing itself, and on Hamas's subsequent justification for the bombing. LIVNI IS championing a position according to which it is critically important what is said in Washington, Brussels, Moscow and Tokyo, as well as what is written in the New York Times and the Times of London. In all those capitals, as well as in those two newspapers and others of their standing, Hamas was rapped hard for, as the New York Times editorialized, its "monumentally cynical and dimwitted applause for the bombing." Both Livni and Olmert, with his background as Jerusalem mayor and minister of industry and trade, understand very well the importance of an international community sympathetic toward Israel's ability to carry out its goals: the short-term goal of depriving Hamas legitimacy, and the long-term goal of a large-scale withdrawal from the West Bank and "convergence" into a number of settlement blocs. One errant mortar round on Gaza that kills scores of Palestinians, and the international wall against Hamas - a wall that has stood up surprisingly well for the last three months - begins to crumble. In spelling out his "convergence plan," Olmert has stated that Israel would look for a Palestinian partner with whom to negotiate, but that if none were found, Jerusalem - after holding consultations with the US and its friends in the international community - would draw up its own borders. In this plan the international community takes center stage, and the goodwill of the West will be necessary for Olmert to carry it out. He needs credibility and credit with the West, and showing restraint at times like these buys him some of both. Olmert's restraint following Monday's attack, one European diplomat said Thursday, "makes him look like a statesman," someone who is playing a long-term strategic game, and not a short-term tactical one. A harsh military response, the diplomat said, would have indicated to the international community that he was concerned with narrow tactical considerations, such as trying to appease the domestic desire to see a painful retaliatory response, rather than with the wider strategic goal of trying to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians. For the world to accept a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, the diplomat said, it would have to be convinced that Israel was sincerely trying to find a partner on the Palestinian side with whom to talk. Marching into Gaza now would not send that message, he said. But by behaving with restraint, Olmert and Livni, according to this official, were establishing credibility in the international community that they were genuinely interested in reaching an accommodation with the Palestinians, even as the Hamas-led PA, through its response to Monday's bombing, was demonstrating that it was not at all interested. Credibility in the sincerity of their goals, the diplomat said, would be critically necessary down the line when Olmert and Livni turn to the US and Europe for support and diplomatic cover for unilaterally setting the border in the West bank.